Since the creation of the modern Greek State in 1821, the average Greek, regardless of where in the world they may find themselves, is torn between two competing versions of Greekness: Hellenism and Romiosini. Hellenism reflects ancient Greek civilization and Western modernity and it is often seen as the opposite of Romiosini which entails the culture that emerged from the Eastern Roman and subsequent Ottoman Empire.
I have already covered in a previous post some of the political considerations that necessitated the adoption of a strict Hellenic identity by the Greek leadership of the Revolution, many of whom were educated in Western Europe. The Europeans who came to the aid of the Greeks in their struggle for independence soon realized however, that the peasants fighting the Turks did not fit into the idealized version of warrior heroes, statesmen and poet-philosophers that they envisioned. Jacob P. Fallmerayer, a German liberal, theorized that Greeks were not even related by race to their ancient ancestors:
"The race of the Hellenes has been wiped out in Europe. Physical beauty, intellectual brilliance, innate harmony and simplicity, art, competition, city, village, the splendour of column and temple — indeed, even the name has disappeared from the surface of the Greek continent.... Not the slightest drop of undiluted Hellenic blood flows in the veins of the Christian population of present-day Greece."
The history of modern Greece has been a long struggle to define Greekness; who we are. After independence and well into the early twentieth century Greeks competed with each other for the soul of Greece. Some would say the struggle continues today. These conflicts included a struggle over the creation of a refined Greek language based on the ancient Attic language versus the use of demotic Greek, used by the majority of the Greek peasantry, which contained Turkish, Arabic and even Persian words. Many educated, Europeanized Greeks looked down upon the peasants and klephts who had fought for independence as products of a "barbaric" past. They saw them as creations of a Turkish occupation during which Turks and Greeks lived side by side. During this time of "togetherness" they reasoned that the Greeks had taken on "oriental qualities." They became corrupt, ignorant, superstitious, lazy, and uncivilized. If Greeks were to become true Greeks they had to get rid of the "Turk" within, even if it meant getting rid of a part of themselves. Even if it meant ignoring their full historical legacy. Many, idealized and identified with a "Hellenic" past, which they transformed into their own concept of true Greekness, in order to fit the model that Western Europeans had shaped of the Greek past. As Kazantzakis writes in Report to Greco: "To gain freedom from the Turks, that was the initial step. After that, later, a new struggle began, to gain freedom from the inner Turk, from ignorance, malice and envy, from fear and laziness, from dazzling false ideas and finally from idols, even the most revered and beloved."
This dichotomy of Greekness was exemplified by attitudes to the wearing of the foustanela. This kilt was worn by the peasants of Greece as well as by the Vlachs and Albanians. For some NeoHellenes it conjured up everything they wanted to reject and to change about the Greek identity. It wasn't until the first Olympic games however, that a strange thing happened. The victory of a young Greek peasant in the first modern marathon race allowed a new identity to emerge. An identity that was accepting of who we truly were as a people.
"Spiridon Louis was the son of a farmer from Maroussi, now a suburb of Athens. He was known for his running prowess honed by running next to a donkey with which he hauled mineral water to Athens. The Greek public had been very enthusiastic about the Games, but was disappointed in the fact that no track and field event had yet been won by a Greek competitor. The victory in the discus, a classical Greek event, by American Robert Garrett, had been particularly painful. Because of its close connection with Greek historians, the public desperately hoped the Marathon would be won by one of their countrymen."
Baron Pierre Coubertin, the most famous of the first Olympiad organizers describes Louis' entry into the Olympic Stadium:
"In a moment, as the approach of the victor was signaled, the whole multitude arose as if moved by an electric current. The thunder of applause rose across the plain towards the foot of Parnassus, as if to awaken in their subterranean abodes the manes of the their ancestors; It was not simply the accomplished act which provoked these transports, but rather the pent-up remembrance of the whole glorious past manifested, in that runner, the vision of the Greek (my emphasis). Then, in order to withdraw him from the dangerous effusion of a delirious crowd, the crown royal and his brother, prince George, carried him away in their arms to the dressing room, and then the enthusiasm rose anew, like an irresistible wave, before the superb picture, which placed side by side, in so graphic a manner, the past and the future. "
Louis became an instant celebrity, more importantly, a symbol that ignited the Greek imagination. A symbol of palikaria, hardiness, filotimo, honesty, pastoral purity. Symbols as Castoriadis points out, can be very powerful, as much for the things that they imply as the things that they denote. Invited to the King's Palace, Louis wore the simple attire of a Greek sheperd. Only a few decades earlier, Theodoros Kolokotronis, one of the great heroes of the Revolution, was almost refused entrance to the palace of Greece’s first king, the Bavarian Otho, for wearing a foustanela. This kilt was originally a southern Albanian outfit worn by Orthodox Albanians (many of whom played an integral role in the fight for Greek Independence) and introduced into Greek territories during the Ottoman occupation of previous centuries. Professor James Verinis, to whom I indebted to for many of the ideas expressed in this post, in his paper on Spiridon Louis writes the following: "In part due to the foustanela he wore to King George’s palace after his win in the first modern Olympic marathon, Spiridon Loues took on the identity of at least three characters in the excitement at the 1896 Games: (1) a “noble” peasant or shepherd (2) a descendant of the “barbaric” yet now simply honorable klephts of the independence movement, and (3) a“triumphant” Greek Olympic athlete of both modern and ancient proportions."
As a symbol Louis was able to bring together disparate versions of a purely Greek identity and meld them into something that all Greeks could relate to and be proud of. In performing his own little miracle by winning the marathon he helped modern Greeks understand that they were truly heirs to a Hellenic and Romeic legacy and by so doing they did not have to abandon either. Within a few months Greece fought a "Thirty Day War" with the Ottoman Empire in Thessaly which ended in a humiliating defeat. Perhaps Greeks found a new confidence and who they were as a people at the first Olympiad but as one contemporary journalist wrote: “Greece combined the appetites of a Russia with the resources of a Switzerland.” A little over a decade later tiny Greece along with its Serb brothers was to send the Ottomans reeling from the Balkans. As Nikos Kazantzakis writes:
"The Greek race has always been and still is the race which possesses the great and dangerous prerogative of performing miracles. Just like the powerful, long enduring races, the Greek race may reach the depth of the chasm, and exactly there, at the most critical instant, where the weaker are destroyed, it fashions the miracle. . . . Our entire history is nothing more than a violent, perilous leap from destruction to salvation."